[NAIROBI] Scientists and wildlife authorities are starting field trials of the first promising vaccine for a devastating cattle disease that plagues farmers across East Africa.
Malignant catarrhal fever (MCF) is transmitted from wildebeest to cattle during the annual migration of over a million wildebeest across the Serengeti and Masai Mara in Kenya and Tanzania. The cattle die five days after symptoms are observed.
About a tenth of the around 100,000 Masai livestock are ravaged by MCF every year according to Sarah Cleaveland, an expert in animal diseases and local livelihoods at the United Kingdom's University of Glasgow.
Scientists had been searching for a vaccine for 50 years but, two years ago, researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK, in collaboration with wildlife authorities in Tanzania, developed what they say is the first potential vaccine for the disease.
They will spend the next three years conducting field trials in Tanzania to gauge the vaccine's efficacy before venturing into commercial production in about five years, according to lead researcher David Haig, professor of animal infection and immunity at the University of Nottingham.
The vaccine is given through the nose and so makes immediate contact with the virus, which cattle pick up from the ground while they are grazing.
Haig said that previous vaccines failed because they were injected into the bloodstream.
He added that the vaccine works under experimental conditions in the UK. "We are confident it will work in the field but it may require some further improvements," he said.
MCF is harboured by wildebeest calves born during the migration. To avoid it, pastoralists move their cattle to higher ground.
This exposes the cattle to other diseases such as East Coast fever and trypanosomiasis, said Mathew Kibaara , Kenya's former deputy director of veterinary services.
The vaccine, if successful, would be of great help not only to the Masai, who depend solely on livestock for their livelihoods, but also to other pastoralists and farmers in eastern and southern Africa.
Organisations involved in the research include the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, Tanzania National Parks and VETAID, Tanzania. The project is part of a £13m initiative funded by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department for International Development.